U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) told the junior class at Branford High yesterday that while some might say North Korea is the biggest threat to our country, he believes the biggest threat “we have is to the rule of law, to our civil rights. I think we are in greater danger than at any point in my lifetime of losing critical rights and liberties.”
Blumenthal was responding to a question from one of 200-plus students who turned out for a Town Hall meeting in the BHS auditorium. The Town Hall meeting, which Blumenthal helped to arrange, took about an hour. Afterwards he answered numerous questions from students individually. Some were concerned about safety at their school, which they said had improved. The event was live-streamed so that teachers and students in classes elsewhere in the building could watch it.
At the same time that he said he was fearful of losing civil liberties, Blumenthal (pictured) said he was buoyed by a youth movement seeking major changes in gun laws and assault weapons.
“First and foremost what we need to recognize is a new social change is unfolding,” he told the students. “I feel the same way about the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the marriage equality movement, the health care movement. They have all been powered and fueled by young people. And I lived through many of them and was involved. So this moment in our history is profoundly meaningful to me as a Dad of four children.”
Taking on Gun Violence
Blumenthal told the audience that he has worked for the past 25 years on gun violence and that for the first time he felt “nearer now than at any other point to change. Why? Because of you,” he said surveying the students in the room. Joining the junior class were the school’s class officers and members of the Model Congress program.
“What is different now? You are what is different,” he told the students gathered to discuss the political issues of the day. The students lined up in the aisles to ask the questions about the second amendment, the national opioid crisis, the impact of 2016 mid-term elections and the movement to end gun violence, especially in the nation’s schools.
Principal Lee Panagoulias introduced the event, saying this was an opportunity to ask the questions the students wanted to ask. “This is your opportunity with a sitting Connecticut senator to come up and ask some questions about process, how to get involved, about legislation.” Next he asked the students to turn off their smart phones. The principal has encouraged the students to find their voice on the issues, whichever way it takes them.
Blumenthal said he was very excited and proud to be at Branford High. “I’ve been here on quite a few occasions and the reason I love coming to this school is because it has great students, of course and great teachers and great staff and it is a great community.” He said he was particularly proud to be here “because of the movement that is growing around preventing gun violence.” He also said he would speak to any issues the students wanted to raise.
Andrew DeBenedictis (pictured), a junior, was one of the few students who identified himself when he reached the microphone. He and Jayleen Flores, Mary Olejarzyk, and Abby Boyle were the leaders of the school’s student walkout, an idea that began on social media shortly after 17 students and teachers were gunned down in their classrooms on Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. A former student armed with a high-powered assault rifle and determined to open fire went into the school and executed his plan.
DeBenedictis, Olejarzyk, and Boyle said after the talk that they were grateful that the senator was listening to them, that he wanted to hear what they had to say. Here is our earlier story on their views.
DeBenedictis asked Blumenthal what he would like to see if the U.S. Senate changed hands in the mid-term election. “And we are a majority?” Blumenthal asked. “Yes,” said DeBenedictis.
“I am working every day to reach across the aisle. I am co-leader along with (U.S. Senator) Lindsay Graham to adopt a statute to bar (Robert) Mueller, the special prosecutor, from being fired. If the senate changes hands I hope we will have a better chance of getting it through. Because, unfortunately, we have become polarized. But I hope we will have Republicans for this. It should be bi- partisan. I also hope with gun violence we can make a difference.”
On Banning Weapons of War
“I have been working on this issue for two and a half decades. I helped to write the first ban on assault weapons in the state of Connecticut,” he said to applause. “I defended that ban in court. I was the Attorney General at the time. And we won in court. I tried the case and argued it in State Supreme Court.
“I have worked on this for a long time. But I feel nearer now to meaningful reform on gun violence than at any point I can remember. And that’s because of you. You are that change. You are what is different now. When I am asked by people in Washington after Sandy Hook, you had all this legislation, universal background check, ban of assault weapons, capacity magazines. And what happened? You had only 55 votes. You needed 60. What’s different? You are what’s different. I’m here to say, thank you. But also we need to recognize that this movement requires sustained energy, perseverance and also a focus on what made those other social movements meaningful and by that I mean, elections.”
He told the students he recently introduced a federal red flag statute, a bill that if adopted would bar some people from obtaining a gun if they are mentally disabled and capable of harming themselves or others. The young shooter in the Parkland High school massacre told police he was going to kill people. “That person should be prevented from buying a gun, particularly a weapon of war. We have that kind of statute in Connecticut, and it has worked,” Blumenthal said.
One student asked him if he supported repealing the Second Amendment. “I think repealing the second amendment, I think is unnecessary. I think it is a distraction from what we need to do to get…every one of the measures I have discussed, accomplished. They are consistent with the Second Amendment.
“I greatly respect Justice Stevens,” he said of the former justice who would repeal the Second Amendment. “I would be in favor of keeping the second amendment so that it provides for common sense prevention.
“I respect the right of people to own guns. I am a law enforcer; I was a federal prosecutor. I was the U.S. Attorney; I was the Attorney General, the chief law enforcer in our state.” He said he has learned over the years that “guns can be misused,” a lesson gun rights advocates well understand, he added.
Blumenthal also made the distinction between owning guns and owning weapons of war. “They are designed to kill people. That is the only purpose they have. Bump stocks. High capacity clips. They are not used for hunting or recreation. I think criminals should not have weapons. So does the NRA,” he said to applause.
Blumenthal also made the distinction between owning guns and owning weapons of war. “They are designed to kill people; that is the only purpose they have. Bump stocks. High capacity clips. They are not used for hunting or recreation. I think criminals should not have weapons. So does the NRA,” he said to applause.
In the end he came back to his fear that the biggest threat the nation faces “is to our democratic process. I have been very heartened by the demonstrations and walkouts and the marches. But we also need to keep in mind that the marches, and the demonstrations and the walkouts occur because we have rights and liberties that are protected.”
At least they are for now.